For grades 5–8, Connecticut has adopted 14 general performance standards in science, which are further defined by 97 more detailed standards. This broad range of content is viewed as important by curriculum experts in the state, and it is consistent with national and state priorities in science. The need for the definition of a more limited domain of content became apparent in the effort to design a state assessment to measure the progress of Connecticut students in science.

For several years, Connecticut attempted to measure science achievement against the standards with a mixed-format test, which included a performance task and both multiple-choice and open-ended items, administered to every student. Because of limits on cost and testing time, however, each year's test could thoroughly and authentically assess only a very limited sample of the state's extensive content standards. Furthermore, each year's test assessed a different sample of the state's content, creating tests that were quite variable across years. This assessment design fell short of providing the direction needed by educators in school districts. As one educator stated, “We don't know how to adjust our instruction to help our students' performance because we have no idea what will be on next year's test.” Fluctuations in school district assessment results over time may reflect the variable agreement between different forms of the test and a district's curriculum more than actual differences in science achievement over time. The limited progress in statewide science performance as evidenced by the assessment results may be related to this inclusive definition of content.

Reluctant to abandon the mix of item formats and the idea of administering the test to every student, state curriculum and testing officials began to revise the test content in preparation for a new generation of Connecticut assessments. Limiting the content to be tested proved the most arduous task. Recognizing that not all content standards would be tested and that those that would be tested needed to be limited and more clearly defined, science specialists had to make difficult decisions about what are the most essential skills and knowledge Connecticut should expect all students to attain.

We provide examples showing how Connecticut officials redefined their content standards in the area of genetics and evolution. Initially, there were six specific standards within that broad category:

Educational experiences in Grades 5–8 will assure that students:

  • understand that each organism carries a set of instructions (genes) for specifying the components and functions of the organism;
  • explain that differences between parents and offspring can accumulate in successive generations so that descendants are very different from their ancestors;
  • recognize that individual organisms with certain traits are more likely than others to survive and have offspring;
  • understand that the extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the species is not able to adapt to the changes;
  • understand that the basic idea of biological evolution is that the Earth's present-day species developed from earlier species; and

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